Country diary: When a wolf looks at you, you freeze
Montesinho, Portugal: The Iberian wolf is protected here, not persecuted. And this young female has got me in her sights
I slow for the roundabout, glance to the north, and catch a movement at the margins of dense Quercus pyrenaica woodland that stretches from here across the Spanish border. It cloaks the low ridges of shale and schist that run almost to the northern Iberian shores of the Bay of Biscay.
This isn’t a striking landscape, nor even a disarmingly intimate one. But it is remarkably thinly populated. Its few villages are closely packed, their narrow streets crowded into clearings that the charcoal burners created centuries ago. Jays have been busy replanting. Here and there, the leaf-roller moth is affecting the health of the trees. Pale patches across the scarps indicate some are dying. Fire is also a threat. For all that, this is a glorious, expansive area of native woodland, and abounds in wildlife that is protected here but persecuted to near-extinction in many other areas of Europe.
I take my monocular from the glove compartment, study the spot where I’d glimpsed movement, and focus. The animal is the size of a retriever, but rangier; its pelage is thick, with dark marks on each front leg, pale ones across the jowls. She’s a young female. She’s looking directly at me, utterly alert. I freeze under the scrutiny of those deep-set, lustrous eyes. This is Canis lupus signatus, or lobo iberico, the Iberian wolf, one of the dwindling remnants of the largest surviving European wolf population. She lopes towards me through an olive grove and squats on her haunches to study me.
Suddenly she’s gone, dematerialising back into the trees so fast that I’ve no idea in which direction she went. The glimpse and the clear identification were enough. Both the previous occasions on which I’ve been rewarded with a wild wolf sighting were equally brief. Wolves are wise. Once, 30-odd years ago, in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley, a grey wolf took a Canada goose right in front of my eyes. Earlier that year, a white wolf walked straight through my camp on the Kent Peninsula in the High Arctic, unafraid.
In Montesinho, a red-backed shrike flits jerkily between trees, searching for prey. High overhead a golden eagle glides, all-seeing, wolf-watching. This country is blessed.